Sacred Planet is a gorgeous IMAX film that actually translates reasonably well to the small screen. In this Disney documentary, director Jon Long and co-producer and co-writer, Karen Fernandez Long, take the viewer on a tour of some of the most beautiful and remote places on earth, including sites in Borneo, Namibia, Thailand, and Alaska, and interview members of “traditional cultures” living in these areas. The result is visually mesmerizing, and, not surprisingly, ideologically problematic.
Part of their stated goal is to urge viewers towards environmental conservation. Their biggest weapon here is pretty pictures. In “The Making of Sacred Planet,” Jon Long explains that the “visual was equally as important as the cultures” in choosing where to shoot. The film’s stunning images are a real achievement. We open with a moving camera shot journeying into an impossibly green and vibrant forest, and it’s easy to feel like you’re “there.” Though the effect would obviously be greater in an IMAX theater, which snugly wraps you in the embrace of a gigantic movie screen, this DVD manages well enough. Especially if you have the equipment to take advantage of the widescreen (16X9 TV) viewing option.
You see some astonishing shots of dolphins swimming, overhead views of deserts as we rush across them, monkeys diving from trees, the play of light and shadow on a windswept plain. Both filmmakers stress the importance of adding motion to the visuals via mobile frames (often tracking shots using cranes they’ve lugged into these remote locations), which they see as an innovation in nature documentaries. You get an almost omniscient perspective here. But this concept becomes problematic when it’s turned on the “traditional people,” shots of whom are interspersed with the “nature.” As a visual counterpoint, we sometimes see time-lapse photography, sped-up shots of frenzied urban freeways to contrast with the meditative greenness of the unpopulated images. We get the point: “the modern world” is losing something in its rush to eradicate the natural world and a traditional way of life rooted to the earth.
The audio adds to the lush effect of the film’s visuals. The Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford, narrates, which seems appropriate given his ongoing efforts to link art and pro-environment messages. The text he reads is a somnolent version of global village, one-world, anti-consumerist, pro-conservation, anti-pollution messages. His opening lines identify the topic as “some of the last pristine places on earth,” featuring “a traditional way of life that has stood the test of time,” with people living “in harmony with nature.”
Sound is important throughout the film. As Redford intones, “Many people have never heard their voices. Now, it may be time to listen.” As well, the soundtrack features world music of the global village variety, with tribal drums, trance-like synthesizers, and evocative soundscapes. All those stoners going to the Pink Floyd laser light show at the IMAX should try this flick instead, no drugs needed.
The real substance is the interviews, which are compelling, though decontextualized. We never learn any of the speakers’ names or backgrounds, but only hear them in voiceover while watching transcendent images. In Thailand, a speaker explains the link between spirituality and nature: “The most important thing is to have a peaceful heart. When we are content with who we are, we treat other life forms with compassion and kindness.” In Namibia, a speaker warns about the cultural costs of ignoring the need for environmental conservation: “If people continue to treat the earth with disrespect, our traditional way of life will come to an end.”
While these sentiments are moving, the framing is troubling. You see the strengths and weaknesses of the film’s universal humanism and liberal pluralist multiculturalism. While the filmmakers might want the subjects to speak for themselves (in English—apparently subtitles are verboten), the film also turns very different groups of people into a noble primitive mass. It never specifies particular groups or even specific places beyond a general geographic locale. Apparently all “traditional” and “indigenous” cultures are pretty much the same. And the message they have for the rest of us is that we’re all pretty much the same. And if we don’t learn their wisdom before it’s too late, we’ll miss out, because, as Redford keeps reminding us, there’s only one or two more generations left who will keep living according to such customs—and then they’ll be forgotten.
When the film looks for “traditional wisdom” from American Indian speakers, filmed in California, Utah, and Arizona, it sounds far too much like the “Vanishing American” rhetoric of the 19th century (learn the noble savages’ lessons before they die off due to civilization’s onrush) or turn-of-the-century ethnographic data gathering. In a typically cringe-worthy moment, Jon Long wistfully remarks that the people were all “so open to us” and “the elders almost had a childlike quality.” Ah, well, good intentions, pretty pictures, poverty of ideology. Pretty par for the Disney course these days.